Sunday, January 29, 2006

On Dropping Out

In a new four part series, the LA Times is investigating High School education. While much of the dialogue is provincial to LA, many of the roots stretch into problems in our own backyards.

At EO, Bruce, Lou, and the Board of Education are all wrestling with lowering dropouts and the potential for droputs. The price the school pays will likely be lower standardized test scores. In other words, by NCLB "accountability" standards we will likely be lowering our chances of looking good statistically.

Here's why it's worth it.

Back to Basics: Why Does High School Fail So Many?
Shockingly high dropout rates portend a bleak future for youths who fall by the wayside and for society. For many, the traditional U.S. education system is a dead end.
by Mitchell Landsberg, Times Staff Writer.

There was a time, not so long ago, when it was possible for a dropout to get a job that could eventually lift him into the middle class. Those days are pretty much over. In 1964, a typical high school dropout earned 64 cents for every dollar earned by someone with a diploma. By 2004, it was 37 cents and dropping.

At a conference last fall at Columbia University's Teachers College in New York, some top educational researchers released their findings about the consequences of dropping out.

The researchers calculated that dropouts will cost the country hundreds of billions of dollars a year in lost income taxes and increased welfare and healthcare costs.

Dropouts will die, on average, nine years earlier than high school graduates.

Dropouts will commit far more crimes than high school graduates.

Economist Enrico Moretti of UC Berkeley estimated that if high school graduation rates were just 1% higher, there would be 100,000 fewer crimes in the United States annually, including 400 fewer murders, and that the savings would be $1.4 billion a year.

In an economy that increasingly relies on educated workers, "those who are not properly educated are going to fall by the wayside," said Michael Rebell, director of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College.

The perversity of NCLB is that in order to avoid being labeled and punished as a failing school there is a reverse incentive to discard the students most likely to bring down these scores. The article describes the dubious practices:
Statistics Versus Reality

The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, in conjunction with UCLA, produced a controversial report last spring saying that official dropout statistics in California's largest school districts were shockingly out of sync with reality. The researchers found that only 48% of the L.A. Unified students who started ninth grade in 1999 graduated four years later. The district claims a graduation rate of 66%.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who wants to take over the school district, jumped on the study to assert that half of the students in L.A. Unified were dropping out.

School district officials said that was wrong, since the UCLA numbers included as dropouts students who had left to continue their education elsewhere. They put the dropout rate for 2003-04 at 33%.

One of the problems with trying to understand the dropout problem is that experts can't even agree on the definition of a dropout: Should it include, for instance, a student who quits school but continues in home study that is unlikely to lead to graduation?

The debate can be seen in microcosm at Birmingham High. UCLA calculated the graduation rate at Birmingham at 50%. L.A. Unified, using federal formulas, puts it at nearly 80%, with just 3.5% classified as dropouts.

Debate has long raged in education circles over who's to blame for students failing high school. Is it the school or the student? The educational system or the society? The parents or the culture?

Teachers, the adults with the closest view of this slow-motion disaster, tend to have the most nuanced view. Even the best of them often express frustration and disappointment in their inability to reach failing students.

Paula Sargent teaches senior English composition at Birmingham and takes pains to stimulate her students.

Students adore Sargent, a former professional singer who appeared on the front page of this newspaper in 1968, when her singing troupe was ambushed in Vietnam en route to a performance for U.S. troops; two musicians died, and Sargent suffered back and leg wounds that afflict her still.

"Best teacher in the world," one boy said as he shuffled into her class. "I love you, Ms. Sargent," another exclaimed.

But Sargent, a wisecracking combination of mother hen and free-spirited aunt, is discouraged.

"There's no love of learning," she said. "If that's not there from the get-go" — she scanned the students slouching at their desks, the ones who had come to class on time — "then we have what we have."

Teachers complain that students come to school with a sense of entitlement — "seat time" alone, they believe, should be enough for a passing grade. Teachers also say they believe that popular culture demeans education.

But teachers also are among the first to admit that, for many students, the traditional American high school is broken. They can't handle its academic rigor and they chafe at its restrictions.

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